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What Sacred Work Looks Like To A Patient: Telling Your Story

By Bonnie Lowry, Research Consultant (HCAHPS and Other Surveys), HealthStream

Our industry is overrun with jargon. We have medical jargon, jargon for the business of healthcare and jargon for every aspect of its services.

I dislike jargon because I think that it desensitizes us to some of the good concepts, practices, and principles that are hiding behind them, which is why I sometimes only half-listen when someone talks about sacred work.

Sacred Work in Action with a Family

On a recent visit to one of our client hospitals, my customer was talking about sacred work, but the story she shared help me to understand that she was not merely using a buzz word. She was talking about a real practice – a practice that was real to everyone in her hospital, not just the leadership team. I knew that it was real because the story that she told was about a housekeeper. This housekeeper had probably never been to a healthcare conference where he could learn the latest buzzwords of our industry, but his actions have me persuaded that he understood the concept of sacred work and that it can be taught to everyone in your organization.

The housekeeper was working in the Emergency Department cleaning and buffing the department’s floors. While he was working he noticed something that happens every day in almost every emergency room in our country – a family in the midst of what was surely one of the worst moments in their lives. A family member had been involved in a serious accident and despite the very heroic efforts of the medical team; the outcome appeared to be grim.

The easiest thing for this housekeeper to have done would have been to keep cleaning that emergency department floor. After all, Emergency Departments are busy places that need constant attention from our housekeeping departments and his job was to clean it. However, that is not what this particular housekeeper did.

Rather than block out the obvious pain of this family who were most certainly going to lose a beloved family member that night, he chose to put aside his cleaning supplies and get to a different aspect of his sacred work. Instead of mopping the floor, he approached the grieving family and respectfully asked if he could pray with them while they waited to learn more about their family member. The family gratefully said yes and this man spent the next hour praying with and for this family.

Sadly the patient did not survive his injuries. I don’t really wonder what this family will remember about this night. I am certain that they will remember the heroic efforts of the medical team and their grief, but when they think about this sad day in their life, the first thing that will come to their minds is likely the generous and caring spirit of this man who put aside his mop to offer them comfort. He understood sacred work even if he missed the conference, the webinar and the journal articles.

Sacred Work in Action with a Patient

Another customer at a client hospital also shared an example of a housekeeper that also truly understood the concept of sacred work. The housekeeper was cleaning one of the hospital’s inpatient rooms and, over the course of a few days, had noticed that one elderly patient appeared to have not had a single visit from a friend or family member. Her room didn’t contain a single card, flower or gift basket to indicate that anyone was thinking about her during her illness.

The housekeeper began to engage this lonely patient in conversation during her daily visits to the patient room and learned that the patient had no family in the area and very few friends. She also learned that it would be a few more days before the woman was well enough to be discharged and that she had been admitted through the Emergency Department with none of her own toiletries.

The patient was still too ill to be discharged, but not so ill that she hadn’t begun to worry about how she looked. She didn’t have any of her favorite grooming and hair care products and had missed her regular hair appointment due to her illness.

It would have been easy for the housekeeper to note this patient’s distress and continue to clean the room. She did clean the room, but when she left work that day, instead of driving home, making dinner and taking care of the needs of her own household she did something that demonstrated her understanding of the concept of sacred work. She drove to a local store and bought some beauty supplies and then after working all day long at the hospital, she drove back and helped this patient wash and set her hair.

Sometimes sacred work is sacrificial. I am sure that it would have been easier, much easier, for these housekeepers to keep going about their daily chores rather than to sacrifice their time, their energy and their personal resources to demonstrate the values of sacred work, but they didn’t do that.

Great Organizations Honor and Reward Sacred Work

I am also struck by the support of each of the hospitals for which these housekeepers worked. The leadership teams at these hospitals recognized and rewarded these sacred work behaviors insuring that other employees knew that they would also be supported if they chose to exhibit similarly compassionate and thoughtful behaviors.

Lastly, these hospitals “harvested” these great stories. They shared them with leadership who in turn shared them with managers and front line employees. I am grateful that they also shared them with me.

I think that we can learn the most from what is happening in our own house.  Are you telling your own stories?  Have you harvested your own best practices?  Do you have a process in place that helps you learn about these great behaviors?   When you learn about them, do you have a process for sharing them so that all employees can learn what sacred work looks like?     I hope you do because I think that we both know that there is someone in your hospital who is doing or is getting ready to do something equally sacrificial for a patient, a family member or a colleague right now. I hope you don’t miss it.

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